Public Defenders

State and governor can’t be sued over public defender caseloads, 8th Circuit says

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Photo by M-SUR/

Missouri and its governor have immunity in a suit claiming indigent defendants in the state aren’t receiving meaningful representation in violation of the Sixth Amendment, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals at St. Louis ruled Jan. 10 in a would-be class action filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri, report the Columbia Daily Tribune and The panel opinion by Circuit Judge Duane Benton said the governor and the state have sovereign immunity, and the governor also has legislative immunity from a claim that he wrongly withheld appropriated funds.

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon had withheld about $7 million in public defender funds in 2016. The state’s new governor, Eric Greitens, did not release the money.

The suit had alleged the state failed to provide enough money to its public defender system. The state spends only $355 per case, less than any other state except Mississippi, according to the suit.

The suit may still proceed against the head of the public defender system and members of the public defender system. But the decision means the state can’t be ordered to provide more money for public defenders, according to

There still are available remedies, according to Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri. A court could order reduced caseloads, for example. Defendants who aren’t dangerous could be released from jail before trial and put on a waiting list for public defenders.

Rothert expects the case to go to trial soon.

Hat tip to How Appealing.

Updated on Jan. 25 to update the accompanying image.

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